Madness in Rouen


It really is madness in Rouen this week. On strict instructions from Tuesday’s tour operator I dutifully arrived at the Vieux Marché to show my group of thirty tourists the Vitraux (stained glass) rescued from St Vincent church during World War One to find a snaking queue in both directions through main entrance door.

“It’s not necessary to pay for entry” I said, as the well-dressed beggar on the door was doing a roaring trade with the unsuspecting Americans!

I wished I could have left out the stained glass and shown something more obscure and less stampeded; there were plenty of places I hadn’t had time to show them.

There are approximately 40 guides in Rouen, and over the last few weeks I have turned up to the river cruise ships to find guides who have been drafted in from Paris to help cater for demand. Some of them had had to rise at 4am to arrive on time. I am glad of my cosy apartment a second away from the centre.

Last night I cursed as the sounds of music came beating through my windows, thinking that once again the students in the neighbourhood were partying and it would be a night ‘thin’ on sleep, but pulled open the huge windows nevertheless to water the Geraniums hanging off my balconies, when I realised, with a start, that this wasn’t any old music…..

“Our House” was definitely playing at top volume, buffeted by the wind in my direction. And of course I should have known. My teenage son had headed off with a friend to listen to Madness on the quayside, a good 40 minute walk away, and I’d been relegated to babysitting. But now I had a perfect seat with the windows wide open to hear an hour and a half of Madness live performance, sadly without the visuals.. but we can’t have everything!

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Every so often “Husband à l’Etranger” and I have raved about the cult pop groups of our time, only for our kids eyes to glaze over – “mum you are SO old”. Last night my son eventually returned,  converted, having managed to get himself five rows from the stage, and having videod entire songs on his phone. How could I have ever thought that mobile phones for teenagers were evil!

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Thankfully the organisers were handing out earplugs to the crowd, of which, according to no1 son, there were thousands. Tonight he’s off again to hear ‘Pony Pony Run Run’ – now there’s a band that is definitely not of my time! But what the city is gearing up for is Friday night’s concert of “Mika”. Superbly popular in France, this will draw thousands, including me and my two younger ones, not necessarily because he is to everyone’s taste, but because his songs are internationally known and because Mika is bilingual French/English which adds to his fan-pulling capability in France.

So there you are, Rouen has drawn in the crowds, not only with the Armada ships, but also with these great free live open-air concerts.

It was madness, there has been Madness, and it still is madness, and will be until Sunday…

when the ships set sail once again and head for open sea. And then?

Well Rouen still has something to Impression you with,

But more about that later!

C’est Adam et Yves, Monsieur! – Becoming a Tour Guide.


About  two years ago, in total naivety, I popped into the Bureau de Tourisme to see if they ‘had a job going’. The women behind their desks peered at me as if I had just landed from a different planet (which indeed I just had) and sent me packing, and I spent the rest of the evening thinking how dreadfully rude they were.

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Two years on I see their point!

This January, a few curious jobs later, the door of the Bureau de Tourisme inched itself open just a little bit as I managed to get a place on the ‘Formation Guide Conferencier’ having quite by chance made a second tentative the day the Bureau had started recruiting. If I had had any inkling what I was about to put myself through, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so keen. But that’s niavity for you.

So it was that I turned up for an intensive three month lecture series, spending the worst part of the sub zero winter temperatures shivering in freezing monuments, led by two lecturers who can only be described as walking ‘Masterminds’ who spent a good proportion of their time, when not delivering the essentials, embellishing miniscule details and corroborating, or disputing each others event dating down to the sheerest milli-second. Clearly this level of detail was ridiculous…

Or was it?

Curiously, over the space of three months, the thirst for linking each historical event and ancient monument became almost unquenchable. The fact that the canons at the cathedral became so irritated by the merchants at the herb market in the cathedral square for using the cathedral as a meeting house when it rained that they demanded the markets relocation,  which in turn lead to the location of the future Palais de Justice on the same site in 1499. Equally interesting was the fact that the wife of King Charles the Mad held, in 1393, a fancy dress party for him as a distraction from government, in which all the men wore feathered costumes heavily impregnated with highly flammable glue. The Queen’s lover, the Duke of Orléans turned up with a candle, and all the costumed guests, with the exception of the king, burned to death. I am not sure, however that that was the queen’s plan! Who was she? She was the woman that handed the French throne to the descendent of the English crown, which in turn led to the arrival of Joan of Arc.

“Do not”, said our lecturers,” make an error on dates”. Dates, if anyone has not yet tried them in a foreign language, are hellish. Then followed a discussion on how the Germans, in order to route out foriegners and spies, would deliberately lead the conversation around dates, where the unwary would inevitably blunder. If the accent didn’t give me away first, clearly the dates would!

The trouble with the history of Normandy is that the English just didn’t know when to leave. In practically every epoch, or so it seems, the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy were held by the same man – and more often than not the English king had designs on the French throne. Clearly the English were not very good at throwing in the towel and returning home, however much more simple that would have made the revision process for me.

Clearly I have more English genes than I had anticipated, for even when the crowd of suited Directors of Tourisme and Directors of Normandie Patrimonie headed for me on Tuesday morning; when I should have seen their approach and run off down the road screaming in terror, I stood resolute, nurturing my limited vocabulary, ready to give my very best shot.

Part of the exam process had been to select a little blue envelope from the pile of 20 or so on the table. Good fortune was shining on me when I opened mine to discover the coveted ‘Aitre St Maclou, the macarbre Black Death cemetery’. Twenty minutes of preparation and we were at the location ready to begin the presentation.

Not to be deterred by the black suits, I led ‘Le Direction’ into an obscure corner of the cemetery to show them one of the few carvings that had survived the anti-iconographic destruction of the Wars of Religeon.

“Note the exceptional carving of Eve, tempted by the serpent” I said.

“Yves?” said Monsieur Le Direction, looking bewildered,

A hasty discussion ensued amongst the Direction, clearly concerned that Paradise had been inhabited by Adam and Yves, before Monsieur Patrimoine managed to clarify that it was an error of pronunciation,

“Ehv” he reassured.

When we moved on, Monsieur Patrimoine was clearly tempted to look at the statue of the murder of Cain and Abel, despite being very mutilated in the Wars of Religeon and in its very undignified position almost in the toilet, where-upon Madamoiselle Patrimoine expressed more than a passing interest in the location of the toilets. I rather suspect she went back there afterwards!

Twenty minutes later it was time to wrap up.

“The cemetery is now on the list of….” but my brain was weary and could no longer recall the translation for  ‘Historic Monuments’.

“Monuments Historiques” filled in Monsieur Le Direction, and my lecturer squeezed me a sympathetic smile.

I left the monument gutted at my linguistic inadequacy, sure of failure.

But a long five hours later an email popped into my in-box from the Direction.

“J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez réussi votre test en français ce matin”

“I have the pleasure to inform you that you have passed your test in French this morning”

The door of the Bureau de Tourisme is open wide. Their office is my office; I am now an official ‘Guide Conferenciére de Rouen’. There has been gain from the pain!

It was nearly the death of me!

So to all planning a visit to Rouen –

Bienvenue!

L’Aître St Maclou and Getting Cold Feet.


I have just returned home after two hours in the pouring rain and bitter cold. We are now in our tenth week of training for ‘Conferencier de Rouen’ and have 20 centuries of French and Norman history under our belt, and eleven edifices at our fingertips. Or we would like to think so!

There is nothing more demoralising than feeling ‘au fait’ with an edifice, or an epoque of history, than hearing the lecturer rattle of the dates in French, and not being absolutely sure that it was the corresponding date in ones own memory – specifically because having translated the date into English, the lecturer has already passed onto another great moment of history, leaving you in the dark as to what he was referring to!

I had a bitter internal struggle this morning as to whether I should leave my umbrella at home in order to have my hands free for note-taking or whether to just listen and consequently remain dry. Our lecturers have so much information stored in their incredible brains, that leaving the note pad behind really wasn’t an option. In the end I huddled under two hoods and got soaked, the two hoods doing nothing to aid comprehension or ability to hear!

Rouen is incredibly lucky historically to have one of the only two ‘Aîtres’ in France. The other, the Aître de Brisgaret is found at Montivilliers near Le Havre. The Aître St Maclou is found in the Martainville area of Rouen.

One must first imagine the city in the medieval age, a city with several fine stone public buildings, the cathedral and the Palais de Justice, to name but two, surrounded by the sinuous and tortuous alleys and streets of timber-framed houses with compacted earth roads and overhanging ‘encorbellements’, vertically narrowing the street and preventing the movement of air and light. To this underbelly, one must add the Normandy climate and incessant rain (!), the mud and the effluent. The sector Martainville was initially the land immediately outside the city’s fortified walls. It was area trapped between two rivers, the Robec, which ran alongside the city ramparts, and the Aubette which ran at the base of the cliffs that surround the town. The area was marshland, frequently flooded by the Robec to north and west, the Aubette, to the east and the Seine to the south. Into this landscape came the industrialists, keen to tap the water to power their mills for the textile trade. And with the trades came the ever increasing number of workers, densifying the built environment with unregulated building, unchecked effluent and high mortality rate.

The increase in industry and the necessity to trade brought with it a route for the highly contageous ‘Black Death’ or ‘Peste’ as it is known in France. The first swathe in 1348 decimated the population and the cemeteries became full. The ‘Hundred years War’ which began in 1345 and continued as a battle over territory weakened resistance to the ‘Peste’. This, combined with the need for high taxation to pay for the war effort, the shortages of grain from famine and lack of cultivation of  farmland created misery. Into this misery came the need to construct a new cemetery to cope with the soaring death rate.

The Aître St Maclou, so named after its resemblance to a Roman atrium, began initially in 1357 as a field, to which over the years to follow additional plots were added. In 1520 the gallery was built around three sides of the perimeter of the field, ostensibly to allow the richer residents of the quartier not to be interred in the ‘fosse commun’ or communal grave but at the edge where little chapels were available for visitors. The demand for space in the common grave became so high that it became necessary to interr the corpses with a caustic cement powder, (a bi-product from construction) to speed the decomposition. The Fosse or grave was worked with such a system that the skeletons could be exhumed without disturbing those still decomposing, and the bones laid to rest in an ‘ossuaire’, an open upper gallery of the building, thus leaving space for new buriels. Suffice to say, the job as grave digger was not only unpleasant but had a high turnover, as each in turn inevitably succumbed to the daily contact with the contagion!

The Aître has its own very particular atmosphere. It was built at a turning point in attitudes towards death and one senses a particular type of menace, reinforced by the incredible carving to both the timber structure, and the stone columns. The timber is heavily worked with representations of death. Skulls, bones, spades and coffins are carved on the horizontal beams, whilst the stone carvings carry grotesque scenes from the ‘Danse Macabre’. If all that does not adequately convey the ‘raison d’être’ of this remarkable building, perhaps the mummified cat built into the wall of the newer southern ‘wing’ will do the trick…

But i’ll leave that for you to find!

In the meantime, my exam is fast approaching; a twenty minute oral on one of the 16 edifices or sectors of Rouen, randomly chosen on the day by my examiners….

…and I’m getting cold feet!

Chute!


This morning it wasn’t just a suitcase sitting silently by the door, It was also my very disappointed nine year old.

It was 7am, and having blasted about town jacketless in the ‘almost-sunshine’ over the weekend buying the last remaining items for ‘Classe de Mer’, we were not prepared for this morning’s revelation.  A suprise ‘chute de temperature’ at 6am had brought with it snow that had been entirely absent at 5am.

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So it was that some 40 mothers were consoling their children that they would not be parting for the seaside at 8am that morning nor missing school for a week. They have every reason to be disappointed. We live but 2 hours from the wonderful sandy beaches that played such an enormous role in the D-day landings. The coach had been hired to take them to Bayeaux and the famous tapestry of William I of Normandy conquering Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, before depositing them at Asnelles sur Mer at a smart hostel.

This coastal region about Bayeaux rich in history. Arromanches, a small market town on the beach hosts an excellent War museum,

 and a short walk along the cliff path passes the 360° cinema,( showing both beautiful, yet harrowing footage of the area before, during and after the war) before arriving at the headland viewing area.

If this is not enough, the Bény sur Mer Canadian cemetery is only a ten minute drive away along with Omaha Beach and its spectacular rugged scenary and glorious sand. It is difficult to imagine the events that took place in  June 1944 when the sun is shining, kites flying and ‘Char-a-Voile’ are skidding across the sands. Nevertheless reflect one must!

Just as in 1944, buckets and spades lay discarded, only our children were listless and resigned where the children of yesterday would have been fearful. For once they were cursing the snow and looking at it with misery.

‘Chute’ I thought, ‘what bad luck’,

And the sky turned white again and the blizzard continued.

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Day trips – A day at Jumièges.


This week, a visitor to Rouen asked me to give her some ideas for her month stay in Rouen.

The river trips haven’t started yet, a fun thing to do in Spring from the begining of the Easter holidays, but nevertheless a trip further down the Seine is a visual treat and its lanscape never fails to impress me. Often visitors come without a car, and this visit to Jumièges is possible by a local bus, and gives a great taste of the Normandy lanscape along the Seine in the footsteps of the Impressionist painters.

Jumièges is a village dating back to medieval times build on a loop of the Seine, and home to one of the Romanesqe, and early Gothic Monasteries, now in ruins. Norman dukes made this the settlement for the first monastery and abbey from the 7th century. The second abbey was built in 1062 and later modernised in the Gothic style in 1278 before being ruined during the Wars of Religeon. The river carves its way through the lanscape with the huge chalk cliffs banking the rive gauche facing over the fertile Jumiége plain with its orchards and Abbey.

Take the number 30 bus from Rouen. Get advice from the TCAR office at the Gare Routière near the Theatre des Arts for the times. In off-season, there are, I believe more buses on a sunday than other days of the week

In Jumiéges there are several small restaurants in the shadow of the abbey, but one of my favorite walks, to prolong the day, and especially in beautiful weather is to turn out of the gate of the abbey to the right, and hugging the bounary of the abbey site as well as possible, to pass behind the monument, passing the wonderful manor which also stands in its grounds, and continue to circuit the site until back at a crossroads with the main street of Jumièges once more. From there cross the main road and take the small lane opposite heading across the plain and orchard fields towards the river. Passing the huddle of houses overlooking the river aim for the Bac ferry which crosses the Seine every 10 minutes (but check the last crossing time before you leave). This small ferry is free to car and foot passengers and lands, very conveniently, in front of a lovely café overlooking the water’s edge.

Spend some moments watching the occasional river traffic before heading either further along the rive gauche, or returning to the rive droit and Jumièges. A 10 minute walk down the lane running perpendicular to the river will take you back to the centre of Jumièges, its cafés, restaurants and bus stop.

Allow yourself a couple of hours for the walk, in addition to the visit to the abbey site, in order to not miss the return bus back home.

And cross your fingers for a sunny day!

 

Bulotamy and La guide Touristique.


For some years I’ve had a little soft spot for the word ‘bulot’. It’s come about after a little incident with the word two years ago when I decided to ‘demission’ from my first job in France.

‘Monsieur’, I wrote ‘Je veux arrêter mon boulot au fin du mois’

I can assure you that, as kind as my French  spell check has been today the ‘arrêter’ did not have a cap on the ‘e’ in the original letter, nor did ‘boulot’ mean job!

For those of you who cannot read French, what I inadvertantly wrote was..

‘Monsieur, I want to finish my snail at the end of the month’.

The letter is quite possibly still on the wall of the directors office to this day, exactly where he pinned it two years ago, having gathered the rest of his staff to watch the event in a state of hysteria.

Two years on, I am as keen to find my way in the French job market as I was then, and so I have invented this new word, ‘bulotomist’ in honour of the ‘linguistically challenged seeker in search of the perfect job’.

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Just before christmas, on my way back from the Ecole de Beaux Arts, where I am now studying to become Monet II, I spotted a glut of American tourists; and where there were tourists, there were guides. It occurred to me that one thing that I did have going my way was fluency in English and knowledge of the city, and this was surely a ‘sure thing’ where such employment was concerned.

After all, when one is obsessed by architecture, fine art and patisserie, is there such a thing as having a finger in too many pies? Not letting the sun set on a good idea, I dropped off my CV at the Bureau de Tourisme with all the panache of a serial bulotomist.

During my ski adventure in Switzerland I received word that i’d been accepted onto the ‘Formation de Guide Accompagnateur’, and today I arrived at the venue to be formed ,reformed or transformed, depending upon how one likes to look at it! To add to the authentic French atmosphere, a street musician serenaded my arrival with his accordian.


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This morning’s lecture was two hours on the History of France with special reference to Rouen. A title worthy of  ‘Mastermind’.  My pride in my quasi-bilingualism was quickly devastated by my new found colleagues introductions. They were for the most part trilingual French and Spanish, a potential quadlingual Japanese, along side which my skills looked somewhat pathetic; there were unformed guides and several preformed guides from other regions… but only one architect. Ha!  The thought of glamourising my attributes in ropey French having heard the introductions of my counterparts set my heart racing. Thankfully, the effort of concentrating on the French wiped away all traces of nerves and if there is one thing I have learnt since living here is not to take myself too seriously. I delivered the potted me!

In four months this little oral introduction will have been transformed into a 15 minute oral exam on an aspect of the history of Rouen or its monuments, a suprise topic selected by the tutors.

‘If you pass the French oral, you get to do it in your native language’. they said.

And that’s where the fun begins!

For now we have an intensive study period from Charlemagne, and the Vikings, to Colombage, and the Renaissance. In June the Armada tall ships arrive to dock in Rouen bringing with them thousands of tourists, in July and August the Japanese arrive in their groups requiring city tours and accompanied exclusive shopping, and the summer sees a return of ‘The City of Impressionism’ and the celebration of Monet and his ‘friends’.

If all goes well, I’ll be in the thick of it…

…if not, it’ll be ‘escargots’ for me till next time!

boulotimage thanks to parispainter.blogspot

It all went rapidly downhill after Christmas!


On Boxing-Day, the grey and dismal skies of Rouen precipitated us to ditch camp in search of new adventures; and so it was that we made a last minute decision to go skiing. ‘Husband à l’etranger’ may be experienced, but for the rest of us this was our first time on the slopes.

We set off for Les Diablerets in Switzerland in the early afternoon after lengthy attempts to reduce luggage to a minimum and squeeze all six of us in the car. Early into the journey it was blatently obvious that we wouldn’t make our ETA of 6pm and the closure of the Swiss post office who were holding  the key for the chalet apartment. Like all small villages though, a general spirit of ‘can do’ meant that the person behind the voice on the phone was happy to drop off the key at the restaurant next door to the post office, and when we finally arrived late in the evening we were more than happy not to be sleeping ‘knees under chin’ in the car!


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The following morning after a quick fit-out of skis, we took ourselves to the nursery slopes for our first lesson.

WELL! It didn’t take long to see who had had the ice-skating lessons, and who was the ‘old dog’…

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On day one I mastered the teleski without ripping my arm out of its socket. I quite liked being referred to as ‘La dame en Blanche’ (The woman in White) by the teleski attendant. It had a nice sound to it. However, I began to wonder if the  name referred to the Wilkie Collins character and might have been more reference to my slightly psycotic attempts to mow down, on several occasions, my ski instructor. Didn’t the Collins’s ‘Woman in White’ come from a mental asylum?

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On days three and four, I ‘took out’ my ski-instructor, and it wasn’t for a drink! Paralysed by fear at the top of a spectacularly steep slope, our instructor told us the story of the day he fell, lost his ski, and hurtled down a stope backwards, before wrapping himself around a fence at the bottom. It took him three seconds to realise he was paralysed, he said. It wasn’t an encouraging story for an ‘old dog’ that hadn’t mastered turning, let alone stopping, even when facing forwards.  Apparently, after three years in a wheel chair, he taught himself to walk again, and then to ski. Perhaps the moral of the story is that there is hope when you have carreered into the only obstacle on the horizon, rather than – ‘this is what can happen if you don’t learn to stop!’ Nevertheless my skis did appear to have taken on the mantle of target seeking missiles.

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The end of day four saw me finally getting my skis under control. I finally mastered a slalom descent of about twelve turns, culminating in a controled stop right beside the teleski. Sadly the teleski attendant had gone off for a coffee and missed my great achievement.

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So having gone very rapidly downhill several times after christmas, I left the mountain in an upbeat mood, ready to book for next time.

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Did I tell you about the euphoria of ‘l’aprés ski’? Mulled wine on a snowy mountain top, and cheese fondu in front of a roaring log fire and warm glowing faces……

That’s for another day!